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Retro revival

By Clayton Collins
The Christian Science Monitor

Everything old is new again this gift-giving season as throwbacks make comeback.

What do you give the person who has everything? Maybe one of those devices that does everything.

The consumer-electronics industry helpfully keeps stamping out products, many with digital wireless functions “converged” within ever-smaller plastic shells. These tools flirt with weightlessness.

A palm-size tool like Handspring’s Treo 600 lets users surf the Web, make calls, take pictures, play music MP3s, send e-mail, and watch videos. Throw in some dental floss and you’re pretty much packed for the weekend.

Or how about — for roughly one-sixth the price, at $100 — a clunky, black, rotary-style phone, with a zinc-armored receiver that feels remarkably like a dumbbell when you jerk it from its cradle?

This year, that second purchase would make you the trendier consumer.

Don’t expect any shoebox-size cell phones to emerge from the Consumer Electronics Show next month in Las Vegas. Still, as gift season peaks, retro tech is pushing to the forefront. New record players, Polaroid instant cameras and analog radio receivers that look straight out of “The Waltons” have popped up as quirky alternatives to DVD-audio, digital cameras and that in-dash Internet radio you can pop out and dock at your desk.

Much of the throwback merchandise that consumers encounter in stores and catalogs represents a simple shift in packaging — that old-style phone, for example, handles touch-tone as well as pulse dialing. As such, the trend marks the inevitable extension of the design movement that has swept everything from teen fashion (those pants!) to automotive design (those fins!).

“People have become a little more aware of design, and the retro movement that has been going on is really about design, about interesting shapes,” said Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer at advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day.

It’s not that design can’t be forward-looking. In recent years, color-frosted translucence has been king (thanks, iMac). But “slim, sleek, ultra-cool hip” has its limits, said Coots from her Los Angeles office.

“Our world has gotten kind of boring” in its sleekness, she said. “It’s the same stuff everywhere you go.”

Enter a new trio of desirable designs: interesting, kitschy — and yes, retro.

As consumers, “we’re looking for a little more personality in our lives,” said Coots. “Look at the revival of the Weber grill,” a simple, kettle-top cooker in an era of high-tech, steel ber-grills that run to $6,000 and serve as smokers, rotisseries and ranges.

But in some cases, the retro-tech revival also reflects a resurgence of decades-old technologies that outstrip their digital, state-of-the-art successors and are now cheaper to mass produce than they were at their inception, experts say.

It may also reflect some consumers’ reluctance to buy into more functionality — more gigabytes, more megapixels, more processing speed — than they can use.

“Technologies and their applications advance with the speed of imagination,” said Ralph Oliva, director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets at Penn State University. “As a species, human beings are not moving that quickly. ... As these technologies and their applications advance, they collide with how much we can adapt to.”

Oliva is no Luddite. A former worldwide brand manager and vice president of design at Texas Instruments, he respects digital technology’s capacity to produce the kind of clean, hiss-free sound that’s ideal for, say, telephone transmissions. And he loves Apple’s digital MP3 music player, iPod. “Have you played with one?” he asks. Its design is so intuitive, “it almost defines its own space.”

But Oliva said he’s hanging on to an aged analog amplifier he owns — and not out of nostalgia.

Like many audiophiles, he cites analog’s wider frequency range for “dimensions of sound that you can feel more than hear,” a warmth that is often mentioned in defense of vinyl records. “When you move from pure function more toward art,” he said, “the analog technologies have some real advantages.”

Similarly, although digital photography excels as a way to capture, store or delete, and transmit photos, some consumers have begun to be less than satisfied with affordable digital imagery. Digital prints lack, as Oliva said, “the incredible range of colors, textures, and approaches that chemical photographic process gives you.”

Other experts point to commercial technologies whose time appears finally to have come — or whose qualities simply have not been superseded. “Your definition of retro kind of depends on your frame of reference,” said Anne-Taylor Griffith, market-research specialist at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in Reston, Va.

“Certain technologies have proven themselves to be reliable and of quality,” said Griffith, whose organization tracks sales of devices by function, not design. “A great example is the cathode-ray tube in televisions,” she said. “Even though we made a transition many years ago from black-and-white to color, and now from analog to digital, there are still CRT digital sets on the market because it’s an established technology that gets the job done.”

As manufacturers have been able to recoup their research-and-development costs, prices of the resulting new products have fallen to where they appeal to the mass market, Griffith said.

“That’s when, from the manufacturers’ perspective, they say ‘OK, we know that this works, and consumers like it. What are some other cool, interesting things we can do with this particular product?’ That’s where a lot of the really creative design starts to have a major role.”

Oliva cites the work of Tom Kartsotis, president of Fossil, the watch and handbag company whose name perhaps evokes retro like no other.

“He tapped into this very early on, this idea that for all of the blazing chrome and silver-and-black kinds of things people are seeing, there’s a balance of people who want something organic, earth-tone, rounded, and that led him into this retro look, even in his highest-tech stuff,” Oliva said.

That old-school-hungry market now appears poised to keep registers ringing. In recent weeks, record players have been carted out the door in significant numbers at Restoration Hardware. “Sales have been great,” said Jane Olszewski, associate manager at the Boylston Street branch in Boston, declining to cite specific figures but putting the buyer demographic at 30-something to 40-something and up.

“People love the (rotary-style) phone and the record players” in particular, she said. “I think it’s the look of all of this memorabilia.’”

Still, at least half of the shoppers roving the retro-tech section at the store on a recent weekday had cell phones glued to their ears.

“Electronics are fun,” said the CEA’s Griffith, “and people use them to stay connected and entertained and informed. They’ve moved on from being a luxury to a necessity.” She predicts wireless handhelds and new flat-panel TV displays will be the hits at the Las Vegas show. This year, they won’t be the only game in town.

“There are a group of people,” said Oliva, “who would rather have it funky.